COMMENTARY: Finally, a proper burial for two World War II soldiers

Stories of heroism and sacrifice never get old. As we commemorate Memorial Day, it is appropriate to detail how the combination of military culture, family perseverance, and pure luck combined to bring a pair of New Orleans friends home for a proper burial following their deaths in World War II and decades of uncertainty about their whereabouts.

Earl Keating and John Klopp grew up within miles of one another in New Orleans. Although they did not know one another before the both enlisted in the Army in 1941, they became friends during basic and advanced training, being stationed in camps in Mississippi, Texas, and Massachusetts.

Once America entered World War II, Keating and Klopp were originally designated for service in Germany, but were quickly transferred to Australia with the 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division of the U.S. Army to prepare for fighting the Japanese.

Once orders were given to take and hold New Guinea — an island north of Australia — Keating, Klopp, and their compatriots were thrust into a battle with experienced Japanese forces. There were problems from the start.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

First, the troops were not adequately prepared for jungle warfare, having previously trained as an anti-tank outfit for European combat. Further, commanding officers were unfamiliar with their troops.

Finally, the soldiers lacked appropriate clothing and equipment for the terrain. After a fierce defense of a segment of the island, Keating and Klopp were killed on the same day, Dec. 5, 1942.

Although initially being told that their loved one was buried in a regular U.S. Army cemetery in New Guinea, the solders’ families discovered that this was mistaken. That began a decades-long effort by the Keating and Klopp families to pressure the military for updates about the whereabouts of Earl and John.

After the military indicated that they were finished with search operations for remains from World War II in 1949, the Keating family requested the intervention of a congressman representing New Orleans, but to no avail. The 1973 fire at the National Archives in St. Louis destroyed over 18 million records, including those of Private Klopp, further delaying the search.

The Klopp family renewed the search for John’s remains in 2008, and in 2011 they received an email from a New Guinea villager who indicated that he found some of John’s possessions while looking for artifacts.

Once the military joined the search, the remains Earl and John were located. After removing the remains and confirming DNA links, the military returned the soldiers to America and released them to the families. Private Klopp was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in March of this year. Private Keating was buried in New Orleans with military honors on May 28.

The return of the remains of Private Keating and Private Klopp highlight a uniquely positive trait of the U.S. military to recover the dead when possible. This was more difficult in World War II than in other conflicts.

The reason for the higher percentage of missing in action (MIA) in that war is due to both its scale — being fought in most corners of the world — and the type of fighting, which included losing a large number of troops simultaneously in naval warfare. As opposed to 14 percent MIAs from World War II, only about 3 percent of American casualties in the Vietnam War are classified as MIAs.

Whether in a cemetery in America or overseas, the headstones of those known to have perished in defense of our freedom are a testament to the ultimate commitment. But for some unfortunate soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines, there is neither knowledge of the specific location of their final resting place nor closure for their families. Still, if there is solace, it is that Memorial Day affords the opportunity to recognize and remember their service.

Three-quarters of a century is a long time to wait to bury a loved one. Yet, the cause Earl Keating and John Klopp gave their life for is a perpetual part of the American character.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. In 2015, Dr. Hoff was unanimously elected as the sixth honorary member in the history of the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati, a branch of the nation’s oldest military hereditary organization. The information contained in this article was drawn from press reports and online Department of Defense files.

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